Threats to Free Speech

The whole Thiel-Gawker-Hogan dust-up is one of those gnarly scandals where no one looks good. It was sleazy for Gawker to publish the video. It’s sleazy for Thiel to be lawyering them into oblivion. From what I hear, Hulk Hogan’s a bit of a sleaze, too, though I’ve never cared the least bit about him.

Unlike some, I think this situation a real threat to free speech. Rogue billionaires pursuing secret vendettas against journalists? Along with government censorship, this is the threat to free speech. What could be worse?

What puzzles me is the idea that this somehow excuses other challenges to free speech, specifically those coming from college campuses. This is exactly why we should be worried about those challenges. If people can’t agree on a value like free speech, it’s much harder to rein in abuses. It’s hard even to argue about them. We end up with nothing but power struggles, billionaires versus bureaucrats. Clash of the over-lawyered titans. Pro wrestling indeed.

Here’s the nuanced take. Thiel didn’t do anything against the law. Activist litigation has its uses, and what’s more, it qualifies as a form of free expression. And yes, bitter plutocrats have a right to that form of free expression, along with organizations like the CEI or the ACLU.

So let him go ahead with his campaign. But it’s still a threat to free speech. We should discourage this kind of behavior. We should be able to explain why it’s misguided.

To do those things you need a platform. A billion dollars probably wouldn’t hurt either. But you also need principles.

That’s why the campus protests are worrisome, at least in some cases. There are different kinds of attacks on a value like free speech. Some are cannons that blast holes in it from without. And some are cracks that weaken it from within.

 

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